Share article

Disclosure: Class Central is learner-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

How to Think About MOOC Value: A Five-Cycle Model Applied to the “Learning Differences MOOC-Ed”

Written by Blythe Tyrone
4 minute read
1 Comments

Much of the discussion around MOOCs has been about participation and engagement, and rightly so, because these are important issues. However, even in the cases where learners “fully” participate, how do we think about how much value is actually provided in the MOOC? Some people may point to satisfaction scores or (usually multiple choice) exam results, but these don’t seem tailored to the types of learning experiences that MOOCs are uniquely well-geared to offer.

New research from the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University uses a “value creation framework,” developed by Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner, and Maarten De Laat (2011), to examine the value that participants find through their engagement in MOOC-Eds. This framework suggests that, in order to appreciate the richness of the value created by learning communities or networks such as MOOCs, it is helpful to think about value creation in terms of five cycles.

Dr. Sherry Booth Freeman and Suzanne Branon — members of the Institute’s research and evaluation team, and the authors of What’s the Value of a Learning Differences MOOC-Ed? — analyzed data collected from the Learning Differences MOOC for Educators (MOOC-Ed). Their aim was to better understand how the design elements of the course affected the value that participants got from their participation, and how it impacted their daily practice.

Freeman and Branon found evidence that MOOC-Ed participants did find value in the courses in a variety of ways, challenging the notion that completion rates are the only indicator of a MOOC’s success and quality. The five cycles are as follows.

Cycle 1: Immediate value includes activities and interactions that produce value in and of themselves, such as: videos of students speaking about the learning struggles they faced in school; “experts” providing background information and/or research findings related to learning differences; access to new, innovative, and/or interactive resources; simple activities to identify learning strengths; and opportunities for informal discussions with educators around the world.

Cycle 2: Potential value includes activities and interactions that produce various forms of knowledge capital that have the potential to be realized later. For example, the Learning Differences MOOC-Eds incorporated discussion forums to encourage participants to share their experiences and engage in debate to further extend their understanding. One participant commented that “the discussions were very engaging and it was very helpful to see and learn more about other professionals’ struggles and learn from them too.”

Cycle 3: Applied value happens when participants put what they learned to use in their classrooms and schools. When asked during end-of-course surveys if they had attempted to make changes in their professional practice as a result of participation in the MOOC-Ed, 97% of educators answered “yes.” Models of effective practice (e.g. strategies, tools, and processes) are frequently provided in the MOOC-Eds to support the application of new learning into educators’ professional settings.

Cycle 4: Realized value occurs when the application of knowledge capital results in performance improvements of varying types. Examining realized value — actual improved performance — is especially relevant here, because the long-term goal or outcome for the creators and funders of the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed is to help all students achieve success in K-12 educational settings. In particular, educators noted positive outcomes with students and improved communication with parents.

Cycle 5: Reframing value is possible when shifts in perspective and practice lead to positive outcomes, and when learners experience a profound reconsideration of strategies, goals, and even values. These shifts can occur at the individual, collective, and even organizational levels. Though this may occur for some participants at a later point in time, several acknowledged the reframing value they found through their participation in the MOOC-Ed.

The guiding design principles of MOOC-Eds contributed to participants experiencing all five cycles in the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed, which dictate that all MOOC-Eds be self-directed, peer-supported, practice-based, and incorporate multiple voices.

Although these courses are designed specifically for educators, the value creation framework and the lessons learned regarding course design in this research are applicable to many types of MOOCs. As MOOCs are continuing to proliferate, perhaps the Five-Cycle Model can be a useful tool in describing the value that is provided by them.


Blythe Tyrone is the Communication Specialist for the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University. The mission of the Friday Institute is to advance education through innovation in teaching, learning, and leadership. We conduct research, develop educational resources, provide professional development programs for educators, advocate to improve teaching and learning, and help inform policy-making.